Heyday Of The Floating Palace


The age of steam on the western rivers began with the New Orleans, and Fulton and Livingston followed up their first success with the Vesuvius, the Aetna, the Buffalo, and a second New Orleans after the original was impaled on a stump and sank. But bad luck dogged their operations and they were never able to capitalize on their initial advantage. Meanwhile a group of men at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, some fifty miles up the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh, had built and were operating steamboats without benefit of licensing. Both Daniel French and Henry M. Shreve of the Brownsville group contributed much to early steamboat design, particularly Shreve, who brought out the Washington in 1816, the biggest steamboat yet built. Alter 1818, when the Fulton-Livingston monopoly was virtually dead; more and more builders came into the field.

Fifty-five years later there were several hundred boats, large and small, operating out of New Orleans. It was possible to book passage on one of 41 lines to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Vicksburg, Nashville, Florence, Shreveport, and Jefferson, to say nothing of countless places on tributary streams. Yet 110 years after Nicholas Roosevelt’s voyage, New Orleans newspapers carried the advertisement of just one steamboat and the great era was dead. It had lasted a little over a century—years in which steamboating and New Orleans became a legend together. And when the steamboat vanished, New Orleans’ commercial prestige was to wane for many years.

By trial and error, the early steamboat builders gradually improved the vessels. The ocean-ship characteristics of the first boats with their deep-rounded hulls, masts for sails, and bowsprits gradually disappeared. Hulls were made shallower so that the boats rode on the water instead of in it; bowsprits made way for the jack staff, a tall flagpole on the bow which had great value to the pilot in sighting his course. The first engines—cumbersome vertical affairs—were superseded by machines with stationary horizontal cylinders and oscillating pitmans which drove the paddle wheels. Since the hulls were quite shallow, boilers and engines were placed on the main deck and a second (and eventually a third or texas deck) was added for the accommodation of passengers. This revolution in design produced a type of boat which was to become characteristic of all steamboats on the Mississippi and its tributaries. During the first two decades after Roosevelt’s New Orleans, 269 boats were built; but between 1830 and 1840 the demand for more and more resulted in the construction—mostly at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville—of some 729 vessels.

Specialization soon entered into steamboat construction. Some firms built hulls, others engines, still others cabins. And for nearly half a century, steamboats were built by craftsmen using rule-of-thumb methods without plans. A captain would journey to Jeffersonville or New Albany and simply tell his boatbuilder what he wanted—”a twenty-five hundred bale boat—so wide, so long, so many boilers, so many staterooms”—and the result was usually to his satisfaction. In later years, plans were used; but such famous boats as the Natchez and the Rob’t E. Lee were built without them.

Since the low flat hull was so little in evidence, the designer-builders concentrated their efforts above the water line. With great resourcefulness, they evolved a new architectural form combining the great, ugly, and bulky paddleboxes, the towering chimneys, and the sprawling superstructure into a graceful type of vessel which seemed to rest securely on the water rather than to tower awkwardly above it.

The cabin builders were chiefly responsible for bringing to full flower the “floating palace” tradition, an elegance which bordered on magnificence. On the larger boats, the cabin, 200 feet long or more, was a “long resplendent tunnel” separating staterooms and serving as social hall and dining room for the passengers. Elaborately carved brackets supported ceilings frequently covered with a riot of near-Gothic ornament. Light from stained glass clerestory windows fell on varicolored Brussels carpets often woven especially for the boat; imported chandeliers, paintings, rich draperies, plush-covered furniture, and that ultimate of Victorian elegance, the grand piano, were reflected in the towering, gleaming mirror at the end of the ladies cabin. This was travel in style!

By 1850 the Mississippi River steamboat had reached the acme of design. No important structural changes took place after that except that builders made some of their boats much bigger and generally yielded to the popular taste that marked the sixties and seventies by providing an exuberance of gingerbread decoration. These embellishments earned the steamboat the derisive characterization of “Engine on a raft with $11,000 worth of jig-saw work around it.”

In mid-century the building and repair of steamboats was a major industry of the western country. Six thousand steamboats of more than a million tons in aggregate were built and run on the Mississippi and its tributaries from 1820 to 1880.